A crew from "Jimmy Kimmel Live" went to farmers markets in 2014 to ask regular citizens about genetic engineering. Each person was asked, “What is a GMO?”

Most couldn’t say. “I don’t know. I know it’s like some corn," one woman answered. "Bad stuff, right? I know it’s bad,” she continued, before admitting, "To be completely honest with you, I have no idea.”

The job of educating that person falls to the Food and Drug Administration, which has been required to work with USDA to come up with an education and outreach plan on agricultural biotechnology and biotech-derived food and animal feed ingredients.

The 2017 appropriations bill that mandates the initiative allocates $3 million for the effort, which does not have a specific launch date. Last week, as a comment period drew to a close, submissions rolled in with plenty of advice on how FDA should spend that money.

The Biotechnology Innovation Center used the Kimmel video clip as an example of how consumers need basic information about the role of genetic engineering (GE) in the agriculture and food industries. “While many consumers express concerns about the safety of ‘GMOs (genetically modified organisms),’ most cannot explain what they think a GMO is,” BIO said in its comments.

Both BIO and the Center for Science in the Public Interest cited a Michigan State survey from earlier this year where 37 percent of respondents said the following statement is true, even though it is not: “Genetically modified foods have genes and non-genetically modified foods do not.”

And CSPI said a 2015 Pew Research Center poll found that ”only 37 percent of American adults agreed that it was safe to eat genetically modified (GM) food while 57 percent said that it wasn’t.”

“The FDA should focus its education initiative on the safety of GE foods and ingredients because many consumers incorrectly believe those foods and ingredients are not safe to eat,” CSPI said.

This is despite the fact that – as CSPI mentioned – a National Academy of Sciences report concluded that “no differences have been found that implicate a higher risk to human health and safety from these GE foods than from their non-GE counterparts.” The same conclusion, CSPI said, “has been reached by other respected scientific and regulatory bodies, including the European Commission and the World Health Organization.”

CSPI also said FDA should focus on “explaining the science behind genetic engineering, which crops have been engineered, and how those GE crops end up in our food.” More than half the respondents in a 2013 Rutgers University poll said they had very little or no knowledge about GMOs. “How can one expect consumers to eat GE foods and ingredients if they have little or no information about the science of genetic engineering?” CSPI asked.

BIO said, “We think explaining the science underlying modern biotechnology, along with a brief history of plant and animal breeding, is an important component of agricultural biotechnology education.”

In the comments, hundreds of individuals railed against GMOs, claiming they are harmful to people’s health and can even cause cancer. “Our country is overwhelmed with diseases, many of which have been contributed to by the usage of GMO products,” one person wrote. Another made like Dr. Seuss, submitting a short poem: “We do not want your GMO's. We do not want them don't you know. We do not want them on our plate. This poison food our bodies hate.”

Citing those statements and others, the National Milk Producers Federation said FDA “should review each and every comment filed in the docket and create a Question and Answer document that addresses all the misperceptions about bioengineered foods.”

NMPF said the Q&A “can address and rebut the misperceptions that GMO’s cause epilepsy, that they are deleterious, that they cause negative physical reactions, that they are killing people, that they are carcinogens, that they are poisoning our families, that processed GMOs hurt a sensitive gut, and that they are overwhelming our country with diseases.”

NMPF asserted that a benefit of genetically engineered crops is less pesticide use by farmers, but the Center for Food Safety specifically urged FDA not to allow that claim to be made.

“They sharply increase pesticide use, when you factor in herbicides,” said Bill Freese, a science policy analyst with CFS. The group’s comments cite EPA estimates that herbicide use increased from 420 million pounds to 563 million pounds from 2005 to 2012.

The reason for the increase, said CFS, “is that approximately 90 percent of GE crops are designed for one purpose: to be resistant to the spraying of herbicides such as glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup), so that farmers can spray herbicides to kill weeds without killing the crops.”

CFS also said FDA should not tout nutritional benefits of GMO crops, saying that “there are currently no commercialized GMOs that increase vitamin or mineral content.”

Nor have GE crops produced yield increases, CFS said, attacking the claim that GE crops will be able to “feed the world.”

BIO dealt briefly with the pesticide question, saying that “insect resistant (IR) transgenic crop technology has reduced insecticide applications” and that herbicide-tolerant crops “have allowed farmers to switch to more benign forms of less toxic herbicides.”

NMPF took on the argument that non-GE foods are safer or more nutritious than GE foods.

“The labeling of a bag of specific type of frozen vegetables that states that they were ‘not produced through modern biotechnology’ could be misleading if, in addition to this statement, the labeling contains statements or vignettes that suggest or imply that, as a result of not being produced through modern biotechnology, such vegetables are safer, more nutritious, or have different attributes than other foods solely because the food was not produced using modern biotechnology,” NMPF said.

FDA has not said when it will launch its initiative. 


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